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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Get in on
Give it up
Come on give it all you got


If someone were crazy enough to let me run a school and I had the privilege of interviewing teachers, my first question would be, "What's your passion?" I almost stood and applauded when I heard Bruce Coville, children's author, croon those exact words. My smile went ear to ear. It was something deep down inside that said, "Thank you, Bruce." Passionate people move me. The energy, the excitement, and the love push me to become a better human.

"What's your passion?" Imagine that in an interview. Would you be afraid to answer? Could you answer? Did your college training prepare you for that question? When teachers are separated from curriculum development you remove the "thinking from implementation and the model of the teacher becomes that of a technician or white-collar clerk." (Henry Giroux) If "experts" continue to bash the humanity out of teaching, how on Earth will teachers teach? The dead honest truth is that inspiring people in the world, the best teachers out there really, are passionate about life. And no matter what the topic, they move people to better themselves in some way.

Edward Berman states that current reformists have "dropped the rhetoric about school as a vehicle for personal betterment." If we're not inspiring kids to search for their own truth why are we teaching?

This is a call for all teachers to bring the heart and soul back to the classroom. However, to do so they must first answer a very difficult question, "a moral as well as a practical question," posted by the most famous critical gunslinger out there, Alfie Kohn: Will teachers "treat students the way they, themselves, are being treated . . . or the way they wish they were being treated?"

Music in the Classroom

I've been listening to music for most of my life and playing it for quite some time. It's my best friend, my co-pilot, and my bedtime story. It's always there to shake up my bones or serenade me into sleepy daze. Music pumps feelings through my veins and clicks the switch on the mind's eye's projector. It conjures up images of people, scenes, landscape, and, if the tune is really rockin', transports me to far away places. As a kid, I was always up on that stage with Gene Simmons breathing fire and spitting blood or rolling around on two Jaguars (cars) in that White Snake video (come on, you did too). It's just the way I'm wired. Music always helps me to visualize and dream big.

My ten years of teaching have taught me many things about how kids interact with music. Some of my lessons failed miserably because of one major flaw: the wrong music. I've done the leg work for ya' so listen closely.

Tip #1 If you are using music for a lesson it almost always has to be instrumental unless you are directly engaging the lyrics. Little guys and gals just can't get over the artist's voice. I've asked them many times and the most common answer of all is... "It sounds funny." Hey, kids are kids.

Tip #2 Meet them half way. You can't put on some dusty old music and expect them to pump their fists and bob their heads. Classical music is awesome, but the kids need a variety of instrumental music to keep them interested. I've discovered some awesome artists searching for rockin' instrumentals. Here's a short list to get you started.

Or, by all means, write and record your own.

 To get you started I've included an original sample track and three levels of writing that I've collected from students.

Click on arrow to start, and read the stages. Running time: 1:00 min.

Level 1: Level one usually consists of a list. "Sad, guitar, boring, slow, funeral."

Level 2: Now we're talking in sentences. "This song makes me feel sad. Old people might listen to this song. If this was in a movie there might be kissing or stuff like that."

Level 3: The mind's eye sees a story. "A small boy sat on the edge of his bed. Tears fall darkening the letter he is reading. It's the first letter from mom since the divorce. He wishes he couldn't read."

You've got the music, now rock the lesson

I begin this lesson by showing John Williams and his musicians performing the Jaws theme in the studio (from my extended version of Jaws, of course). Watching a composer lead his orchestra while the movie plays on a huge screen is completely magical. Music tells so many stories. It's quite a gift to be able to write the musical story that matches the passion and energy of the actors all while enhancing the themes and the feelings of the scene. Just amazing. I want my students to use their mind's eye so I reverse the roles. Instead of writing music to the story, I want my students to write a story, a thought, a scene, or a list to the music. I usually spin six to eight partial tunes (about a minute) during each session. This takes practice and patience so if you get blank stares at first don't stress. Be happy, you're listening to music, remember?

In the end, your students will have a list of story nuggets or seeds or whatever you choose to call them. You will have fed the musical spirits, opened the eyes of the nonmusical, and perhaps even kindled a flame.

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kelly KJ's picture
Kelly KJ
Instructional Coach in Newport News, VA

Love this! Music is my passion, as well, and has been all my 30 years in the classroom! I make music a part of EVERYTHING I teach from writing prompts to fractions to natural resources to poetry to grammar. I believe that great teachers allow their passions to integrate into all that they do with their students, and the students respond BECAUSE they feel the passion. A wonderful example is shown in the PBS documentary about a teacher for all time, Albert Cullum, who infused drama and play into all that he taught. (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/touchofgreatness/) Thanks for your post!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Thanks for this post Gaetan. Although I always wanted a teacher passionate about music (and in turn, hopefully would inspire us with music and music-based projects), I never had one.

I did however have a fifth grade teacher (who was my favorite teacher of all-time), who shared his passions for Geology and bird watching with my class. I have to tell you, by the end of the school year, we could identify most rocks (we even did fun things like have a rock fashion shows - I received first place, thank you very much, for my Crystal who was dressed up in my favorite barbie outfit) and could also identify most bird calls. What does this have to do with anything? Well, my teacher's passions translated directly upon the 35+ kids in his class and we were able to use those new talents in other projects. Thinking back, we also gained a new level of respect for our teacher more as an individual. He was a person too, that just happened to be passionate about birds and rocks. It was honestly just inspiring to be around a person that was inspired about random things that didn't necessarily have to do with testing. And to this day, I still hear a bird call or pick up a rock and think of this teacher that translated his quarky passions into the classroom. I'm sure Gaetan's teachings will have the same long-lasting impact on his students.

Kelly KJ's picture
Kelly KJ
Instructional Coach in Newport News, VA

Your post reminded me of a teacher I used to work with whose passion was diving. He used photographs and film clips from his own diving adventures to inspire his 8th grade science students. Like the teacher you described, his love of the ocean the underwater world permeated all of his lessons, and the kids were reeled in to a love of science because of him. You are right about the inspiration that is derived from being around people who model their thirst for learning.

Barbara Gilmour, Creator of Cool Kind Kid's picture
Barbara Gilmour, Creator of Cool Kind Kid
Curriculum Developer: Social Skills, Anti-Bullying

Music is definitely a plus in the classroom. My passion for the last 10 years has been both teaching social skills to kids, and developing curriculum materials addressing social skills, character values, and anti-bullying issues. I believed early on in the process of creating these materials that music was so important in engaging kids and helping them retain the lessons, that I commissioned a CD. This CD has 17 original songs, each teaching a different social skill. The content for each song came from our lessons. We also produced a performance/music-only version to allow more creativity. We have had positive results in both pilot studies and in responses from schools using our materials. I wanted to share some examples of how we have incorporated the music into our materials and offer some of the responses we have seen.

Magic Words lesson: Song-"Magic Word Mambo"
This catchy tune includes the 5 Original Magic Words (please, thank-you, you're welcome, excuse me, and I'm sorry,) as well as others we added- the 4 Greeting Magic Words (hello, good-bye, good-morning, and good-night,) and the 3 Family Magic Words (I love you).
Response; A principal said, "My students are saying "hello" to me and making eye contact with me. A teacher said, "My students are using the Magic Words with each other. Behavior is improving."

Rude Behaviors lesson: Song-"Rude Rudy"
Students listen to this "Elvis" type song. They are then asked to identify the rude behaviors Rudy was doing, why they are rude, how kids feel when someone does that to them, how they would feel, etc. You get the idea.
Response: Kids love this song and have incorporated dance moves, created skits, and performed it. Several teachers reported that the kids were more aware of their behavior and saw improvement. Some kids have even been noticed singing this song when they see one of the rude behaviors in action.

First Impressions lesson: Song-"Wanda and Luggo"
We make a first impression in 5 seconds. Is it fair that people make a judgment about us in that short a time? No, of course not. But the reality is that they do. We try to show kids that there are things they can do to make the best impression possible. Things like having good hygiene and grooming, acting appropriately, wearing clean clothes, and having a confident attitude, can prevent a child from being the target of a bully. In the song, "Wanda and Luggo," kids first hear how Wanda does everything right, and Luggo does everything wrong. They are then asked to draw what they "think" each looks like based on what the song says about them. They realize they are thinking things about someone that might not be true. "Should we believe what the song says about them, or what someone says about someone else, or should we get to know them first before forming an opinion about them?" The lesson continues with students going over the qualities that someone making a good first impression would have, and vice-versa, with the qualities someone making a poor first impression would make.
Response: Reports have shown an increased awareness about appearance, actions, and attitudes, and how they have lessened some of the target areas that kids are typically bullied about.

Through our music, fun activities and characters, we endeavor to redefine "cool" for kids so they learn "The KIND kid is the COOL kid, not the bully." www.CoolKindKid.com

Laurie Chu's picture
Laurie Chu
Web Production Manager

"You may be wondering why I'm clapping? I did this [presentation] at a school in Boston, with 7th graders --12 year olds. I did exactly what I did with you. And I told them, and explained to them. And at the end they went crazy. They were clapping; I was clapping; they were clapping. Finally I said, 'why am I clapping?' One of little kids said, 'because we were listening' ;)

"Think of it, 1,600 people; busy people. Involved in all sorts of different things. Listening, understanding, and being moved by a piece by Chopin. Now that is something."



Wan-Jung Lee's picture

Music is a very important element in everyone's life! I like the ways that you share to teach with music and it also show me how I can cooperate music in the class in the future. Also I think there is one quote that I really like. "We must remember how children learn rather than how we teach. Through movement, through emotions, through activities, through projects--all the basics fit in. And they're learning without realizing they're learning." Thank you for sharing.

Amy Lewis's picture
Amy Lewis
Kindergarten teacher from Wyoming

I use familiar music in my Kindergarten classroom for quick, smooth transitions, and they work fantastically. I use a 30-second snippet of "Na-na-na-na, Hey-hey-hey, Goodbye" for transitions between centers. Students practice and they know that as soon as they hear the music they clean up their present center and move to the next. It is quick and quiet. At the end of the last center I play a 45-second snippet of "I like to Move It, Move It" and students know that centers must be cleaned up completely and put away. I also use a 2-minute song, "Hey Now, You're an All Star" to signal the ending of a project. Students know that they must have the project complete by the end of the song.

I also use music for "brain breaks," just a quick re-energizing and re-focusing strategy.

Last, I use Baroque music (music like Bach and Handel that contains 50-80 beats per minute) during seat work time. According to Quantum Teaching: Orchestrating Success (DePorter, Reardon, & Singer Nourie, 1999), this music effectively stimulates the brain for learning.

DePorter, B., Reardon, M., & Singer-Nourie, S. (1999). Quantum learning: Orchestrating Success. Needham Heights, MA: A Viacom Company.

Stephanie Glanzer's picture

I have always wanted to use music in a more "starring role" in my classroom, beyond playing music for a work time. Using music for a writing lesson or for cues for transitions are great ideas!

I have noticed that different classes respond differently to music. I have a class of second graders this year that calms down immediately when I start to play any instrumental music. The class I had last year, no matter how calming the music was, they would just get louder and louder. Has anyone else had that experience?

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